BY ELIZABETH BLUEMINK, ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS MARCH 10, 2011 1:08 AM
Spurred by the rush to develop the Arctic's offshore oil and gas riches, scientists are unlocking some mysteries about the marine environment off Alaska's northern coast.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the icy Beaufort and Chukchi seas, resulting in major discoveries -including the existence of commercial fish species such as Pacific cod and walleye pollock in places never before documented. Two summers ago, Libby Logerwell and her colleagues from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service headed out in a trawler to survey fish populations in the western Beaufort. This research project occurred the same year that the federal government leased large blocks of sea floor in both seas to major oil companies for exploration. It was the first offshore fish survey in the Beaufort in 30 years.
Logerwell said the main goal of the 2008 Beaufort survey -compiled into a final report in February -was to gather data to help evaluate the potential impacts of oil and gas development.
But her team's discoveries east of Barrow had other ripple effects.
For example, the team's find of commercial fish species more typically caught in the Bering and North Pacific informed federal fishery regulators' 2009 decision to ban commercial fishing in U.S. Arctic waters, to buy time before seafood companies could even think about moving boats there.
The biggest fishery in Alaska targets Bering Sea pollock.
A larger concern is the potential for environmental disruption, either from increased shipping traffic as Arctic ice recedes amid global warming, or from catastrophic spills of future oil production or exploratory drilling. Scientists say it is difficult to calculate the damage if you don't know even know what is in the environment.
Also, scientists are watching commercially valuable fish and shellfish species expand their range northward due to warming ocean temperatures. In addition to the discovery of pollock and cod, Logerwell's survey was the first to find commercial-sized snow crab in the U.S. Arctic.
Since 2006, offshore oil and gas regulators have spent about $60 million on Arctic research. Royal Dutch Shell, one of the companies that aspires to drill exploration wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi, says it has spent more than $500 million on scientific work.
The scarcity of data and concerns about Arctic wildlife including bowhead whales and polar bears has resulted in harsh criticism from environmental groups seeking to halt or slow the pace of oil and gas development in offshore waters.
Some tribal governments on the North Slope and many environmental groups continue to oppose Shell's plan to drill in the Beaufort Sea.
"We strongly believe the science should be conducted first, until we have a good baseline," said Chris Krenz, a Juneaubased scientist for Oceana, a conservation group. The fish surveys are an important step in that direction, he said.
It remains unclear if pollock and Pacific cod are spawning in the region or just migrate there.